Play is a child's work, and it comes naturally to kids. While we often focus on how a child's intellectual abilities are coming along, the role of imaginative play in childhood development is often overlooked.
Imaginative play comes in many forms, whether playing house during a play date or pretending a cardboard box is a magic portal to the dinosaur age. Whatever a child chooses, imaginative play expands creativity, problem-solving skills and cognitive thinking. That is why for children in the 3- to 5-year age range, it is crucial they are given access to time, space and playthings to fully experience it, says Laurie Schacht, publisher of The Toy Insider.
"Imaginative play enables young children to navigate their new and growing emotional thoughts, as well as boundaries within their own social and family group settings," says Schacht. "A simple doll can create a new world or environment for a child to role play, as they interact with their toy and learn the importance and responsibilities of caring for something."
While children need little prompting to play and pretend, there are many things parents and caregivers can do to encourage and support imaginative play. Here are a few ideas and tips to get started.
* Build a dress-up station: With a dress-up station, kids can take their pretend games to the next level of fun — and perhaps even stage a play to entertain the entire family. Include hats, funny glasses, fake beards, wigs and shoes. Tip: Yard sales and thrift shops are a gold mine for inexpensive, gently used costumes and accessories.
* Imitation is good: Kids like to mimic real life situations in their play, helping them make sense of their world. That makes kitchen sets, play tools and even a play shaving set so much more than simple amusements. So if they want to cook a pretend dinner, be sure and arrive "hungry!"
* Cardboard boxes are magic: With the help of a few simple, everyday objects around the house, kids can make their own playthings — and put their creative spin on it. Penne pasta, a little food coloring and string lets them make and design their own colorful beaded necklaces. And don't forget, to a kid, nothing holds more possibilities than a large empty box!
* It's OK to pretend in public: Just about any outing gives kids the perfect backdrop and inspiration for imaginative play — and lets them burn off energy! You can kick things off with a simple "what if" statement such as, "What if the playset was a ship at sea?" And just watch as the kids take over and do the rest!
* Say hello to their imaginary friends: As they talk, listen to and have adventures with a doll, stuffed animal or action figure, they're developing their understanding of relationships. They're also learning something about expressing emotion and connecting with others. So when they ask you to say good night to Teddy, just go with it!
Also helpful in the development of imaginative play are playsets that encourage open-ended, interactive experiences. Calico Critters, featuring a focus on "Nature, Family and Love," offers a variety of detailed environments, complete with a cast of all kinds of critters to engage children to explore their imaginations. The new Town Series Grand Department Store introduces a new character, Stella Hopscotch Rabbit, who works as a dress designer. It features elegant, sophisticated styling and a unified design for even more freedom with the layout. With finely sculpted areas and exquisite attention to detail, it draws children in and enhances imaginative play.
"Calico Critters delivers a rich play experience for kids," says Chris Byrne, aka The Toy Guy, who specializes in following and analyzing current toy trends and promoting the benefits of toys and play. "The scope of the world and the various characters are brought to life in the imagination, giving kids a chance to contextualize their experiences, explore their personalities, and engage in the sheer fun of storytelling and creativity. It's the kind of active, engaged play that supports healthy intellectual and emotional development."
To learn more about Calico Critters, visit calicocritters.com.